The burn unit at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio, Texas, is hot. Sometimes, it gets up to 102 degrees in there, among the patients.
People with severe burns can’t regulate their own body temperatures well, so the air has to keep them warm.
“We see a lot of gruesome stuff,” says physical therapist Melissa Boddington. At the height of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than one thousand wounded service members were flown to the hospital.
The burn center’s mission is to treat members of the military for burns from fire, explosions, chemicals or radiation. The treatments can include skin grafts, amputations and inpatient rehabilitation to regain mobility or learn to live with a body that has changed dramatically.
More than 15 years of war have led to major advances in burn care. In one case, a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan burned more than 97 percent of one Marine’s body. He was flown to San Antonio, and survived.
Thousands of U.S. troops are still in war zones, but with the end of major combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and fewer soldiers coming home badly burned, the military burn center is treating more civilians.
Col. Booker King, the director of clinical services, says burn specialists also work with orthopedists, eye doctors or kidney specialists because people who come in with burns often have other serious injuries as well.
Most of the patients treated at the burn center right now are civilians who were burned in car wrecks, house fires, cooking incidents or workplace accidents in the oil industry. Because the hospital is on a military base, Fort Sam Houston, a special dispensation from the Secretary of the Army allows them to be treated there.
70-year-old Marty Wender spent 90 days in the intensive care unit at the burn center after he fell while he was taking a hot shower. He either passed out or hit his head. By the time his wife found him unconscious, he had burns over 20 percent of his body.
“When EMS showed up, they thought I was dead,” he says. “It was across my chest. The biggest burn was on my back and on my right arm and my two hands.”
The staff at the burn center helped Wender recover from his injuries. He lost two fingers.
“It keeps everybody honed, ready to get the job done,” says James Williams, a physician assistant in the burn unit. “It’s a very tactile type of medicine. If you’re not using your skills, you can lose them.”
“[We] treat a 17-year-old who got burned from throwing gas on the grill the same as we would treat a soldier who may have gotten injured in combat,” he explains.